80 Evangelicalism and Ecumenism

One of the expressions that used to be around a lot in Christian circles and institutions was that of ‘inter-denominational’. By suggesting that an organisation sat lightly on the boundaries that existed between Christian denominations, it was trying to pretend that somehow it transcended these differences. Of course one soon learnt to realise that ‘inter-denominational’ was a code for a complete rejection for all the historical issues that exist in the Christian story in favour of what this blog would claim to be a flat, predictable evangelical form of Christianity. By claiming that evangelical Christianity was in a direct succession to the New Testament and the early church because it alone followed the letter of Scripture, the events and twists and turns of Church history could be ignored at will. In practice the conservative evangelical interpretation did hang on to some parts of Reformation history but this left the first 15 centuries to be ignored as though they had never existed. Thus the contributions of Orthodoxy, the medieval mystics and the Celtic church were airbrushed out of consideration by ‘bible-believing Christians’.

All Christian denominations exist because of the events of church history. Each denomination represented an important emphasis which stood as a witness to one part of the great panoply of Christian truth. Thus the few Anglicans who have taken the trouble to study the Methodists cannot fail to be impressed by what the Wesley brothers stood for, even if they do want to become Methodists in the 21st century.

Evangelicalism and ecumenism do not mix. The reason is that the former has very little sense of Christian history in claiming that it alone knows the ‘truth’ because it has God’s word. Ecumenism is rooted in a firm understanding that Christian history must be embraced and understood so that all that the different Christian bodies represent can be heard, understood and represented in finding an ever fuller vision of Christian truth.

Ecumenism is thus hard work and takes patience and intelligent study as well as imagination. The cliché-ridden slogans of popular evangelical rhetoric do not deliver the subtleties required for this kind of work. Here in the Anglican Diocese of Carlisle we have a conundrum which is preventing important ecumenical work proceeding because of the predominance of evangelical churchmanship in the area. Over the past 20 years this Diocese has encouraged many evangelical clergy to occupy hitherto ‘middle of the road’ parishes. Now the Diocese is finding it hard to move forward with a great plan for working more closely with the United Reformed Church and the Methodist to form mission areas. A predictable resistance is being found on both sides. It is hardly surprising to find that an evangelical clergyman rooted in the Bible finds it hard to understand the subtleties of difference with their Methodist brethren. The feeling is mutual. I do not know what is going on at the other end of the Diocese but things do not look good around here. And yet it was all so predictable …….

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

21 thoughts on “80 Evangelicalism and Ecumenism

  1. I am sad you are finding it difficult to get the parties to agree to proceed together. Personally I experience this in every area of life – with my wife, with my fellow trustee in the trust we run, with clergy… ! So it may not all be the fault of evangelicalism itself. Personally, I have gone off labels and just accept the phrase, “I love Jesus”, and in your situation, if people were asking me to work together with them, my question would be, do these people love Jesus and if so how can we show that love better to all the ones out there? Anyway, I hope you get some success across the diocese. I’m happy to come and bang a few heads together if you want.

    1. David, I think you have missed the point of my post. Ecumenism involves the complex and vital task of listening and engaging with the point of view and experience of another Christian. Evangelicalism, it seems to me, sets out to indicate a single view of Christian ‘truth’ which is beyond argument or discussion. Noone is apparently doing much listening in the work of evangelism, it would appear.These two things do not engage or connect in the real world. ‘To love Jesus’ does not grasp the complexity of this non-communication and failure to engage with what other different Christians want to give to our limited experience of God. I for one would never expect that I or any other Christian could embrace complete truth on my own. It will always be bigger than what I can apprehend. Just because something is complex does not mean that we should retreat into simplifications or cliche. I for one will always need to listen to what other Christians are saying and have said. That is why I continue to be ecumenical at heart.

  2. So Ecumenism is hard – because of those pesky Christians I dont agree with, so I’m just going to rubbish them and see if that helps….

    Really Stephen – I thought better of you.

    Sweeping generalisations that I dont recognise:

    “trying to pretend that somehow it (interdenominational agencies) transcended these differences”

    So if Ecumenism doesnt allow a particular perspective it cannot happen.

    “code for a complete rejection for all the historical issues that exist in the Christian story”
    “the events and twists and turns of Church history could be ignored at will”
    “the contributions of Orthodoxy, the medieval mystics and the Celtic church were airbrushed out of consideration”

    So all evangelicals dont read any church history except for the reformation – again an insulting pastiche.

    “an evangelical clergyman rooted in the Bible finds it hard to understand the subtleties of difference with their Methodist brethren”

    So evangelicals cannot do nuance either…

    Maybe we should try sarcasm!

    (By the way – good way to get more of us contributing – keep it up!)

  3. The ultimate essence of Ecumenism lies in the text”Whoever would save his life will loose it” and in following the way of the cross. Most Churches do not really believe this and are far more concerned with their own self-preservation.The challenge of ecumenism it to really believe the gospel and the Churches do not,They have become societies for their own self-preservation.As “The Imitation of Christ” has it “If you die with Him you will also live with Him”.The Churches do not really believe the Gospel.If they did they would be willing to die to their denominational Identities.

  4. “ Behold I stand at the door and knock”
    ( Echoes of Laodicea )

    When I was a card carrying evangelical I was instrumental in the conversion of Ronnie.

    Ron has had a lot of problems over the years but never doubted his faith.

    Today I received a text from Ron he said this !

    “ I tried a church door in Cambridge it was locked. I asked a lady at the door if she would let me in. She asked me who I wanted to see? I said I wanted to pray she looked at me surprised and then she proceeded to let me in. I think a number of our wonderfully crafted churches could be in danger of becoming glorified coffee houses !!! Just a thought…..”

    Chris Pitts comment: ‘ Coffee house church’, easier to meet with Rod than God ?

  5. To me, “evangelical” means a certain emphasis on reaching out. Which I thought was what it was supposed to mean! I agree with Stephen that many evangelical clergy of my aquaintance are apparently very badly educated, including on theological matters! But I don’t actually think that’s compulsory! I do know bright, intelligent, well educated people, including clergy, who are evangelical. The problem, and I’m sure it’s true of all churches, is simply the inclination to think “I am right”. And anyone can do that.

  6. Dick. I don’t think it is a pastiche to suggest that conservative evangelicals sit lightly on church history. My field of study used to be the study of the early church and my attendance at conferences etc never brought me into contact with conservative evangelicals. I add the adjective ‘conservative’ because it is that branch of the evangelical family that wants to say that that there is no truth beyond what is found in scripture. I have said more than once that many conservatives seem to adapt their rhetoric to suit their audience which is why I value Peter Heriot’s book on Philip Jensen, the leading Australian conservative. He cannot in his published work do what many conservatives say when challenged, ‘We don’t still believe that!’ Philip J. says categorically that the whole of Christian truth is found in Scripture and I would maintain that the long road of tradition of interpreting and working out the meaning of Scripture in the churches has added to as well as qualified this claim. This is why ecumenism is so important because we can learn from what other Christians have learnt. The hall-marks of the classic evangelical are all about grasping on to and communicating a particular version of the Truth. There is nothing wrong with that. I can learn from this as well. But there is little of the listening and learning in that stance. It is all about making sure that everyone hears what is being said. That is why I feel the two approaches don’t seem to work together. There seems to be an oil water reaction! Anglicans have an added problem around here, in that they feel too important even to talk to the Free Churches, let alone learn from them.

    1. It’s happening on the ground. An Anglican church invites a Methodist Lay Preacher to take a service during the holidays or something. The legal stuff is a pain, but it is that which delays matters.

    2. Appreciate that Stephen – these Evangelicals are slippery people. Unfortunately we do not do enough listening to one another across all the divides. How about you try reading something of substance from a contemporary evangelical theologian – Like say NT Wright.

      1. NT Wright is an evangelical, granted but he is not a conservative. The people that our Chris came up against in the past are not the NT Wrights of this world but politically motivated ranks of conservatives. These would follow the Philip Jensens and the rabble-rousers of GAFCON. You will will not catch Wright on a platform with such people ( I hope not at any rate). Wright is not not considered ‘sound’ by many of them. There is a lot of power games and politics in all this and it is not pretty. Power to dominate churches seems to be a strong motivation rather than theological truth. Incidentally I was a graduate student with Wright in the 70s though I was not working on Paul, as he was. The books I have read by Wright are on the NTestament, not on the identity of evangelicalism. I am not clear of the line he taks on the ‘political’ questions.

    1. Thanks. I’m on line because I got a letter saying that orange have emailed me with my password for a new internet connection. Can anyone explain to me why they use the internet to tell you about a new internet connection that you haven’t yet got? Anyway, it wasn’t there anyway! So I decided to look in. I thought maybe I should move house more often (NO, NO) seeing as it had livened up without me.

  7. Where is compassion??

    The sick lie dying in temples of pretence,
    So many illusions in the film show of life,
    Being old is an inconvenience.
    The conveyer belt of care trudges on driven by a capitalist machine
    All goes to nothing.
    Rich men pray in the house of God, but, God is not there,
    Robots wink at superhuman inhumanities,
    All goes to nothing.
    The poet rages at the sun,
    Sympathy is pretended with all the sincerity of a T.V. chat show host,
    All goes to nothing
    Where is Compassion?

    Chris Pitts comment:

    All the conversations, all the modern blogging, are but worthless foam from the mouth, unless we can tackle head on the issues raised in this poem. I say this because I believe the founder of the Christian faith would be annoyed with our wrangling. Blogs by their very nature are bipartite; we need a tripartite body mind and spirit approach and a lot more generosity.

  8. Thanks haikusinenomine. I agree with your remarks about Qatar workers, I would add that I have always tried to get the Church to see the modern slavery on it’s doorstep here in England. I am baffled and bewildered as to why the Outsider Project’s campaign for community inspectorate teams (for residential nursing homes) has sadly not received even a whisper from the Church.

    Also may I thank Robert Jeffrey for pointing out the inverted mentality of self- preservation in the English Church. Thanks also to English Athena for pointing out the lack of education in many evangelical areas. As you know I was once disempowered through illiteracy. Knowledge is a great tool but can also produce a tyranny.

    My reasons for putting the poem on the Blog was for us to focus on what appears to be the grey area of human need and the people from whose ranks I am proud to have come.

    I wish someone would give me some advice on how best to use the knowledge that I have in the University of life, I feel a strange resistance to me personally on this subject and even on this Blog.


    Chris Pitts

  9. John 17.
    One further thought.The ecumenical movement has often centred of the prayer of Jesus in John 17 when he prays “That they may be one”. But what does being one mean? E Kasemann in his commentary on John17 defines unity as “Freedom to the very limits of what would break up the fellowship”
    That is a definition I cannot see many Conservative Evangelicals accepting.They want a unity of the likeminded not the unlikeminded!

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